It’s the wording, stupid!
Sometimes, how you say it is as important as what you say.
When someone asks you do something that you don’t want to do, how should you respond? Do you say that you have another engagement, thus that you cannot do it, or do you simply refuse to do it?
The former is polite. The latter is rude. Naturally, a recent study suggests that you should opt for rudeness, for being confrontational and direct. It’s bad advice, but let’s examine it anyway.
From New York Magazine:
… in a recent post on Mental Floss, Shaunacy Ferro highlighted some advice for getting better at “no,” in work and in life: Choose your words carefully. A refusal that includes “don’t” — as in, “I don’t answer emails on a Saturday night” — is more powerful than one centered around “can’t.”
It may be more powerful, but if you receive an email that calls for your immediate attention, saying that you don’t answer emails on Saturday night makes you look churlish, rude and dismissive. It makes you look like a perfectly self-involved fool. You would do better to say that you did not receive it. But, if you do receive it and it requires your attention, telling yourself that you don’t respond to emails on Saturday night will make you look like you have bad character.
This example concerns how you interact with other human beings. What you tell yourself is a different story. Take these examples, from the article:
Saying “I don’t eat X” when tempted by an unhealthy snack, for example, made participants feel more “psychologically empowered” than using “can’t.” The same held true with a scenario about resolving to exercise each day: “I don’t skip my workout” was a more powerful motivator to get to the gym than “I can’t skip my workout.”
Of course, if someone offers you an unhealthy snack, the best response is: No, thank you. I would rather not. Telling yourself: “I don’t eat chips” will not make you look very good in the eyes of other people.
As for your workout, I will confess to you that the phrase: “I don’t skip my workout” is poorly expressed and borderline agrammatical. Besides, why all the negativity? How about telling yourself that you should do your workout, that it is good for your health, that it will provide manifold benefits for body and mind. At worst, you should say that you have to do your workout, or attend a yoga class, or whatever. The phrases chosen by the so-called experts are simply off the mark.
To balance out the issue here Jane Brody has written a column about the right and the wrong ways to apologize. Her column is based on a new book on the subject by Harriet Lerner. I do not know that book, but Brody’s column is first rate.
When you offend someone, by word or deed, you are obligated to repair the damage by offering an apology. When you apologize you are saying that you are taking back what you said, undoing what you did, by saying that it was unintended and that you will never do it again.
As Lerner and Brody point out, apologies only have value if they are unambiguous, if the person apologizing takes full responsibility for his actions, does not tack on an excuse and does not try to weasel out of by saying: “I am sorry you feel that way.” A sincere apology requires that you humble yourself for something you did. The latter sentence shifts the focus and the blame.
Moreover, Lerner notes, a sincere apology should not contain a request for forgiveness. If the other person chooses to forgive you, that is a good thing. If you ask for forgiveness you are depriving the other person of the freedom to judge whether the apology was sincere, thus, that your offense was unintentional and that you really will not do it again.
Importantly, Brody says, apologies are designed to repair relationship conflict, to eliminate the drama. It is better to apologize than to talk it out or even to act it out. Apologies are designed to restore harmony, not to produce even more cacophony. The powers of a sincere apology are almost medicinal.
She describes an interesting conflict she had with a neighbor:
After learning that a neighbor who had assaulted me verbally was furious about an oversight I had not known I committed, I wrote a letter in hopes of defusing the hostility. Without offering any excuses, I apologized for my lapse in etiquette and respect. I said I was not asking for or expecting forgiveness, merely that I hoped we could have a civil, if not friendly, relationship going forward, then delivered the letter with a jar of my homemade jam.
Expecting nothing in return, I was greatly relieved when my doorbell rang and the neighbor thanked me warmly for what I had said and done. My relief was palpable. I felt as if I’d not only discarded an enemy but made a new friend, which is indeed how it played out in the days that followed.
Note that the neighbor’s anger was a message. She was communicating something to Brody. She was telling asking her to recognize that she had committed an offense. The neighbor was not simply getting it off her chest or expressing her feelings. One does better to consider the expression of anger like a move in a chess game than a dramatic outburst purging a negative emotion.
Once Brody recognized her own failing, she apologized. As for the neighbor’s anger, it dissipated. It is important for those who belong to the psycho world to recognize that these feelings of anger have a place in a human interaction and can be eliminated by righting the human connection.
Importantly, Brody does not try to render her own bad behavior meaningful. She does not try to understand where it came from. She does not submit it to therapeutic introspection. She does not seek out infantile causes. She does not try to find a diagnosis.
In other words she does not do what therapists have always promoted as the way to resolve unruly, negative emotions. The therapeutic approach invites people not to apologize. It invites them to try to discover why they did what that did. If they should choose to apologize, they will have learned from therapy to qualify the apology with an explanation. They will explain that they did it because of their bad upbringing or a childhood trauma or because they were mad at someone else—i.e. transference. The therapeutic approach might even tell them that if they humble themselves by offering an apology they have a constitutional right to receive something in return.
Rather than resolve dramatic confrontation, the therapy culture promotes a way of behaving that will compound your problems. Thus, the approach promoted by Harriet Lerner and Jane Brody represents a great leap forward.